ALBANY — Democrat Herman “Denny” Farrell, 85, of Manhattan, submitted his retirement papers Thursday after 43 years as a state assemblyman during which he built relationships across the aisle, across race lines and across the Legislature’s upstate-downstate divide.
“Even when you debated Denny, you had nothing but respect for the man,” said Assemb. Al Graf (R-Holbrook). Graf often opposed Farrell, who stands 6-feet, 4-inches tall and wears impeccable three-piece pinstripe suits.
“He was the rock as far as the Assembly was concerned as far as integrity, and no matter what, he was a gentleman,” Graf said of Farrell, who also served as state Democratic chairman for many years.
“His honesty came out in those debates . . . I think he is what every public official should aspire to be,” Graf said.
Democratic and Republican leaders who agreed on little else agreed on their view of Farrell.
“Denny taught me and an entire generation of New Yorkers the power government can have to serve the people and do good things for the community,” said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who dealt closely with Farrell, as did Cuomo’s father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Farrell said he tried to get beyond conflicting views and even hatred to find the good in people with whom he dealt. After living through the civil rights movement, he said he is optimistic the country will come together again even amid rising racial tensions.
“There were a lot of good people on both sides of the aisle,” in Albany, he said in an interview Thursday. “I always felt that in our own country we could be sharp to each other, but we also knew — although it’s hard to say at the time — that everybody who came there came to do good.”
Farrell’s political career began in the 1960s when he helped Democrats win elections in Alabama, where he traveled with bodyguards and a shotgun on the car floorboard.
Since 1970, when he was elected a Democratic state committeeman, he served through racial tensions, his battle with dyslexia, and a growing partisanship in Albany that ended much of the one-on-one relationships in bars and restaurants that once fueled progress in the Capitol.
Farrell’s stamina became legend in Albany since 1994, when he was appointed the powerful Ways and Means Committee chairman. That meant that every January and February he co-chaired the Legislature’s endless hearings on a governor’s budget. The “13 nighters” often began at 5 a.m. with review of the voluminous budget proposals, then hearings during which the governor’s staff was grilled and advocates and lobbyists testified often into the night.
When it came time to adopt an agreed-upon budget by April 1, it was Farrell who defended every detail of the budget in marathon floor debates to the pointed questioning by often angry Republicans in the minority, who under Albany rules weren’t part of crafting the budget.
Farrell experienced racism from all sides, having two white grandfathers and a mother from Jamaica. He remembers being told, “You don’t know because you aren’t black,” and later enduring racism from whites. He turned that experience into legislation, working for more school aid, civil rights and jobs for his Harlem constituents he knew who continued to suffer from racism.
“I am black,” Farrell said, “but I have no anger at all . . . I was always very lucky.”